Digital Divide Essay

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Digital divide is a metaphor for the cleft between people with access to technology and those without. Although the term originated in the mid-1990s to describe differences in technological infrastructure of U.S. schools, it has grown to describe various forms of alienation predicated on class, race, and national identity. Some analysts see a problem rooted in access, or the lack thereof, to computers and Internet services, whereas others suggest a more persistent gulf between developed and developing nations. Still others deny the existence of a divide at all, arguing that market forces have created an abundance of services and products that serve to render the issue moot. Finally, some authors maintain a “change over time” approach, pointing out that although the term may have had some cogency when it was coined, various government and social initiatives are working to narrow the divide.

A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that two thirds of U.S. adults go online, and white, educated, affluent people without a child living at home are more likely to have regular access to the Internet from home. Older citizens, African Americans, and the less educated are not as likely to go online, although only one in five reported never having been online at all. The report suggested that the current digital divide resides with access speed; connection speed is a more important factor in Internet use than experience. The report also suggested three degrees of Internet access: cold, tepid, and hot. The first group has no access and does not go online, the second has a tenuous or modest connection to the Internet, and the third is considered highly wired.

Some critics contend that figures such as those reported by the Pew Center are important but miss the deeper issues of understanding and social inclusion. Despite well-meaning attempts to improve people’s lives through the introduction of information and communication technology, meaningful access entails much more than just the provision of computers and Internet connections. Rather, a complex interaction among variables, including physical, digital, human, and social resources and relationships, must be considered as critical components to the problem of, and the solution to, the disparity between technological haves and have-nots.

An international study released in 2005 by the UN Conference on Trade and Development combines many of these arguments. The report finds that wealthy, predominantly Caucasian (and some Asian), relatively educated countries do better than poorer countries, especially those in Africa. While the technological rift today may be due to the presence or absence of, and access to, dependable, high-bandwidth connections, information and communication technology is slowly becoming more available and accessible to all. Case studies of China, Chile, Botswana, Singapore, India, and the United States have explored how various social, institutional, and governmental strategies interacted to create diverse solutions and equally varied results to technological disparities. Although market-based solutions have been important tools in bridging the digital divide, the report suggests that private enterprise solutions may have reached the point of diminishing returns, and new solutions need to be explored to continue the advances already under way.

Optimists offer a market-based panacea to take on the assumption of the growing alienation between the well-connected and those who are not, typically citing the prevalence of free or almost free hardware to Internet connections as proof that the divide is a myth and attempts to reconcile it are wasted. Most studies, however, suggest this argument reflects more wishful thinking than rigorous analysis. When one third of Americans lack access to the educational and journalistic information provided by information and communication technology and when developed and developing countries support radically different technology infrastructures, alienation within and between nations is likely.

Bibliography:

  1. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. 1999. “Falling through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.ntia.doc.gov/legacy/ntiahome/fttn99/FTTN.pdf).
  2. Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Reports: Digital Divisions.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.pewinternet.org/2005/10/05/digital-divisions/).
  3. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. “The Digital Divide Report: ICT Diffusion Index 2005.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://unctad.org/en/docs/iteipc20065_en.pdf).
  4. Warschauer, Mark. 2003. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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